The 10 Commandments of the Kettlebell Swing
If you are an 80’s kid or older, you are familiar with The Karate Kid. It’s one of those movies you come across while flipping through the channels on a Sunday afternoon and just have to stop and watch until it’s finished. The real gold is found in the gems that come from Daniel and Miyagi’s conversations. One of my favorites is from a scene where Mr. Miyagi is training while Daniel is finding “the balance” in the ocean. Curiously, Daniel asks:
Daniel: “What was it you were doing on those stumps over there?”
Mr. Miyagi: “Called Crane Technique. If done right, no can defense.”
Daniel uses that un-defendable kick to finish Johnny off in the big tournament at the end of the movie.
You Are Responsible for Each Swing
The most underused and misunderstood exercise an athlete can have in his or her arsenal is the kettlebell swing. The usefulness of this one move cannot be understated. Like the Crane Technique, the kettlebell swing “if done right, no can defense.” But the effectiveness of the exercise is determined by your approach, your standards of performance, and your technique on every rep.
Consider a 405lb back squat. The weight itself demands respect. If your technique gets sloppy with that much weight, you will likely fold like a pretzel. With the kettlebell swing, however, most every weight you will swing will be “light” in comparison to the weight of a heavy back squat. There’s no such thing as a 1RM kettlebell swing.
Therefore, the responsibility lies with the user. You can swing a 24kg bell for ten reps and get next to nothing from it. I see it all the time with some of my athletes who are trying to get in and out of the gym without much effort. But in the hands of an operator who is trying to get the absolute most out of ten reps, those 24kg swings can redefine nearly every aspect of that person’s strength, power, speed, and explosiveness.
The 10 Commandments of the Kettlebell Swing
The following “commandments” are mostly my own. I assume the reader understands the basic fundamentals of this exercise: a hinge, not a squat; ballistic, not a grind; Russian, not American.
I am a proud member of the RKC leadership and wholeheartedly believe in the Hardstyle Russian swing. But I’m going to try not to rehash every piece of what we teach at one of our certifications. There will be a little crossover, but more importantly, the ideas given are more of the nuanced cues we’ve developed at my shop over the past twelve or so years.
Commandment #10: Have the Right Attitude for Swings
My wife is an absolute athletic freak. It’s upsetting in the sense that everything comes easy to her. A lifelong volleyball player with a full ride scholarship who played overseas, she swings a golf club like a pro, throws a football like a dude, and can find position in any lift without trouble. The first time I taught her a pistol, she saw it, paused to think about it, and did it as if she had been practicing the exercise her whole life.
But she hates to swing. She dreads every time we swing together (and we swing five nights a week out in front of our garage). She has made up her mind that doing these next hundred swings is going to be the hardest thing she’s ever done, and therefore it is.
Change your attitude about your swings. Tell yourself you love to swing before you reach down to grab the bell. Get excited about it. Lie to yourself until it becomes the truth.
Commandment #9: Start From the Ground Up
Your feet connect you to the ground and are the lifeblood of each rep, so they need to feel completely balanced and have some degree of tactile certainty.
I won’t take a stance on what shoes you can and can’t wear, but your feet need to have an intimate relationship with the ground. Most disciplines insist on either bare feet or something as minimal as possible so this partnership is not at all obstructed. Because I have performed so many swings, I could probably swing in clown shoes standing on two pogo sticks. But most of us have not committed themselves to this exercise to that degree.
"If you can get yourself to redline on every rep, in every set, the swing will be iconic in your development. You will max out conditioning, fat loss, speed training, explosiveness, and power."
Make great footwear decisions. Less is more if you are a newbie. If you choose shoes that completely sedate your ability to feel the ground, make a change.
Commandment #8: Use Your Big Toe for Balance
The position of your big toe is rarely taught or addressed. We typically talk about the heels when we teach swings. “Drive the heels down and line the shins up with the calcaneus so the force is directed straight down.” The only time the toes are mentioned is when the lifter actually picks them up off of the ground and the coach corrects it.
The big toe plays a major role in any movement requiring balance. And since the swing moves your center of gravity front to back versus up and down like in most lifts, balance is critical. When I engage my big toe and press it into the ground during swings (without shifting my weight forward), my stability and balance go through the roof. The sense of control increases, and this inevitably translates into my ability to produce power.
Commandment #7: Create Space in the Knee
Lock your knee out while sitting at your computer desk. You’ll feel the vastus medialis oblique fire and get the sense of hitting an anatomical wall. Now, do the same thing, but this time visualize your heel pushing further away from your knee. Think about lengthening the distance from your knee cap to your heel. Can you feel it?
That millimeter or less of space that you create when you use this technique will pay off in spades down the road. You never want to slam your knee while it’s locked, but I’m afraid that is what most people do. Instead, think of getting taller from the bottom up. It will reduce a lot of shearing forces that the knees are normally subjected to and will put another 100,000 miles on them for the future.
Commandment #6: Ensure Your Hips Arrive First
In a textbook swing, the hips, knees and abdominals are all supposed to lock or link up at the exact same time. I know this. But for the purposes of this drill, I want you to think about bringing your hips forward so fast and hard that they arrive first. They won’t, so to all of you smarty-pants out there: pipe down. The hips need to be highly active, and the intention behind this drill is to develop speed and crispness. Therefore, your hips arrive first.
Commandment #5: Cramp Your Glutes
This is an RKC cue, but it’s one that we typically glaze over quickly. I typically teach this cue by bringing my athletes together in a group and saying:
“Squeeze your cheeks together as hard as you can. Now add ten percent. A little bit harder… more… more… ten percent more…”
Usually they will begin to wince and become uncomfortable. When you finally let them release it, they will tell you they could feel the muscles of their butts begin to cramp. You need to experience it to know what I’m talking about.
Commandment #4: Pull Your Lower Abs Up
Because most of us have done millions of crunch/sit up variations, we have no problem engaging our upper abs. But many of us have difficulty activating our lower abs. In the swing, think about pulling your lower abs up as your glutes lock into position. It might take a little time, but when you do - wow. The entire abdominal wall locks into place.
Commandment #3: Pack Your Shoulders Down
This is an important cue. Packing the shoulders down as your arms rise up directs hip and leg energy to the kettlebell. One fast way to facilitate the shoulder pack is to cue bending the handle. Think about slamming the shoulders down the moment your hips engage. You will immediately feel the bell respond.
Commandment #2: Keep Your Neck Aligned
Remember your neck is a part of your spine, and keeps your spine straight. I will shamelessly plug my last article on this one, but in all seriousness, this could be the number one cue. Do not let the head move independently from the rest of the spine, regardless of position. For a thorough investigation of this cue, check out my last article titled, Pack Your Neck for a Safer Spine and Stronger Swings.
Commandment #1: Swing as Hard as You Can
Many of the above cues facilitate this first commandment. Here’s the deal. I work with over 500 athletes each day, and I am constantly harping on them to swing as hard as they can. Most of them are either too afraid or too inexperienced to actually go hard. They think they are swing as hard as they can, but in reality, they aren’t.
"Do not let the head move independently from the rest of the spine, regardless of position."
This problem reminds me of when Daniel thinks he’s hot stuff and begins to mess with Miyagi while they are training. He asks:
Daniel: “What do you think, Mr. Miyagi?”
Mr. Miyagi: “I tell you what Miyagi think! I think you dance around too much! I think you talk too much! I think you not concentrate enough! Lots of work to be done! Tournament right around the corner!”
Imagine being electrocuted. Envision how intense the contractions will feel before your soul is ejected from your meat suit. Swing that hard. Make your eyes bug out. Rip your hamstrings off the bone. Shatter your teeth from gripping down so hard. Swing as hard as you can. If you can get yourself to redline on every rep, in every set, the swing will be iconic in your development. You will max out conditioning, fat loss, speed training, explosiveness, and power.
If you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty passionate about the swing. It’s a total game changer when it is done well. Put these ten commandments into action to supercharge your technique.
More on the kettlebell:
- All You Need to Know About Getting Started With Kettlebells
- Can Kettlebells Improve Jumping and Balance?
- 2 Kettlebell Exercises to Create Incredible Trunk Power
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
Photo courtesy of Andrew Read.